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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan

We should use our rail network as roads

If New Zealand wants to optimise its transport network it needs to change its mindset.

I lived near the East Cape of the North Island last year. The forests planted after Cyclone Bola have matured and laden logging trucks rip up the southbound lane. Since the closure of the Gisborne-Napier railway due to an 'unfeasible' landslip, the southbound lane has noticeably deteriorated.

It is clear that the road user charges revenue paid by logging trucks isn't being invested where those trucks are driven. Someone has also fudged their figures about the importance of rail to the region.

Back in 2005, National campaigned using blue and red billboards. National said that petrol taxes would be spent on roads while criticising Labour for wasting them on hip-hop tours. Today, National hiked petrol taxes to cover government debt - mostly wasted on pet projects like The Hobbit.

The figures speak for themselves. The Government collects over $2.5billion in road user charges and petrol levies every year. If you wade through the fudged figures, on average $1.2billion a year is targeted towards state highways and $250million on rail.

Politicians who talk up the potential of rail have been criticised as flaky or 'playing train sets.' What is overlooked is that we don't appreciate what we have.

While major roadworks build tunnels, viaducts, or deviate straight through hills, our railway network did that a century ago - with picks and shovels. What New Zealanders own today is straighter, flatter, and better built railway network than any road. While the Manawatu Gorge road washed away, the railway kept operating. When the Otira Pass or Desert Road is closed by snow, the rail is still operational.

Yet rail is treated differently to road. Anyone can use a road. Why can't the same apply to the rail network?

Kiwirail says that it will cost $4million to fix the washout on the Gisborne-Napier Railway.

New Zealand is lucky to have Cape Gauge, a narrower gauge suitable for windier terrain. Rail-buffs think that the narrow gauge is a hindrance to 'efficient' haulage. If your mindset is large locomotives and long trains, then you are looking at the problem from the wrong angle.

If Kiwirail maintenance trucks can drive along the rails, why not logging trucks, milk tankers, commuter or tourist buses?

The benefits are obvious. Trucks would use less fuel due to rail's lower gradients and a smoother ride. Lighter loads would generate less ware on the track. Traffic would be cyclical throughout the day. As most trucks and buses operate GPS navigation, that would assist with signalling.

In terms of buses, it could boost tourism and solve many public transport problems. Like in Adelaide, buses could jump on and off rail-type corridors.

Imagine taking a tourism coach by rail to Rotorua, then by road to Taupo, then jumping back on the rail at National Park. Imagine travelling by rail and road around the South Island. Think about all the other iconic rail journeys throughout the country.

It's not like re-inventing the wheel. The technology already exists and has been applied in Europe and Japan. New Zealand engineering firms already churn out truck and bus chassis that could be adapted to run on both road and rail.

In other words, we should not accept our rail network as unfeasible. We should unleash its potential to other uses. We should accept it as an integrated part of our transport system.

There is a debate in Auckland about an inner city rail loop and even an airport rail link. Other projects in the lolly scramble include the eastern motorway corridor and a new harbour road/light rail crossing. If buses could jump on and off the existing tracks, wouldn't that achieve more with less?

Right now, some entrepreneurs propose a $150million, 11.6km bus tunnel linking Queenstown to Milford Sound. The Cook Strait is 22km. The English Channel is 34km. The Seikan rail tunnel linking Japan's two main islands is 54km across a major fault line. The New Zealand Government is considering investing $422million towards a new ferry terminal at Clifford Bay.

Can you see the problem with our mindset?

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